When you think about saké, you may think about a Hibachi chef serving the drink from across the cooking surface or a small white ceramic bottle adorning a sushi spread. But, the way saké has become synonymous with these styles of eating is not at all what was originally intended. In fact, saké food pairings go well beyond raw fish and soy sauce. So, what is the best way to enjoy saké, and how do you make the most of this delectable drink?
“There is a misconception that sushi and saké are a thing,” says Nes Rueda, managing director of Heavensaké. “In Japan, people drink white Burgundy or Champagne with their sushi, so this is really an American adaptation.”
He continues, “It’s not that saké is misunderstood, but it’s undiscovered. It’s not a beer, it’s not a wine–saké is its own thing.”
And, he’s right. Saké is much more than what American sippers have made it out to be. The beverage goes through a brewing process similar to beer but should be sipped like wine. (In fact, the best way to drink saké is from a white wine glass!). Saké has multiple styles, each with its very own nuances of flavor. Floral, fruity, sweet and dry—there is a saké for every palate.
“Saké is very personal, just like wine. Some may love a fruity Riesling but shy away from rich Chardonnay. In that same sense, some may love funky Yamahai saké or earthy Junmai saké but dislike pretty and elegant Daiginjo style saké,” says Eda Vuong, lead saké specialist at Saké School of America and brand ambassador for WESAKÉ.
But, there are some major differences in the way saké favors foods. Unlike other boozy beverages, saké is a vessel for flavors instead of an enhancement, Rueda explains. Whereas wine or beer may take food’s flavor to the next level, saké, instead, is designed to bring out the details you may have missed before.
In wine or beer pairings, it is best to find complementary flavors to those that are on the plate. But with saké, it’s actually about combining similar flavors for bites that will enliven the palate, says Miho Komatsu, a WSET-certified saké educator and brand ambassador and manager of Akashi Saké Brewery.
“It is always best to find similar flavor profiles. Finding a similar profile will make tastes double. It is not one plus one equals two with saké and food. It’s one plus one equals ten,” she says.
Ready to get sipping? Here are some saké and food pairings you should try when you crack open your next bottle.
Saké and Mediterranean Flavors
One of the most refreshing (and interesting!) takes on saké and food pairings is saké and Mediterranean cuisine. Evan Zagha, co-owner of TwinedNYC, notes that he grew up eating Greek food and it has now become one of his go-to saké and food pairings. Additionally, coastal Italian meals where seafood and citrus are the stars of the show can also create a synergy with saké that will be a surprise and delight.
“It is fat-heavy, so you have a lot of oil. There’s an insane amount of seafood, so you have that salinity, that brininess from all those [kinds of] seafood that gets cut or complemented with all the different sakés,” he says.
Zagha adds that Middle Eastern food, closely related to the Mediterranean style, should also be explored with saké. Israeli couscous and grilled meats or rice popular in Syrian cuisine are also complementary flavor profiles that become magnified by the addition of a glass of saké. “They’re kind of very similar all around, but they have their own life, their own heart. And those types of cuisines all go well with saké.”